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99 tips for a better world (22 of 99): build a bridge

Build a bridge
When I left my office job about six weeks ago, I also pretty much left Twitter. Perversely, when I had no choice but to look at a computer screen all day, in my free time I chose to look at it some more. Now that I don’t have to look at a computer screen all day, I remember all the other things one might like to do instead, like play in the dirt.

I love Twitter. At its peak, my Twitter habit was serious. I was utterly incapable of moderation. I lived amongst my Twitter companions for more hours a day than I’m willing to admit. I loved the pace of the information and ideas and opinions spilling forth on every topic. I loved the access to people whom I admire and the thoroughly un-hierarchical flow of knowledge shared.

Even so, there was something about my world inside Twitter that troubled me. For that reason my recent absence has been a relief.

I followed a broad range of talented, funny and thoughtful people on Twitter: journalists, commentators, politicians and everyday people who just share interesting news. I was buoyed from witnessing many thoughtful and intelligent people bravely engaging in public dialogue about issues facing Australia and the world.

On the flipside, though, the conversation could be aggressive, dismissive of opposing views, and cruel. While no doubt a reflection of public discourse more broadly, on Twitter it is magnified by the 140-character limit and the compulsion to engage and respond quickly, which is a recipe for hot-headedness and misunderstandings.

Uncomfortably for me, it wasn’t only the people whose political views I disagreed with who engaged in snark and pettiness. I watched people whose minds and principles I admire sink to the level of name-calling or personal attack. There is a fine line between standing up to bigots, and fighting a dirty war alongside them.

Of course, we will not always get along, but there is a massive civility-sized hole in much of the discussion on Twitter. I am confident the quality of debate will improve if we fill that hole.

In a conversation for American Public Radio*, two articulate advocates from opposing sides of the marriage equality debate in the United States, David Blankenhorn and Jonathan Rauch, explained a technique for civil debate I admire.

Blankehorn describes it:

We call what we did “achieving disagreement” because it’s easy to have a false disagreement. I can just say you’re a bad person, you’re stupid. But to actually know where we disagree requires effort from you and from me. We have to have a relationship to do that. In today’s world of hyperpolarisation and the sheer idiocy that is our public debate the heart just cries out for serious effort to achieve disagreement.

Blankenhorn also describes three levels of a civil debate:

  1. Be nice

  2. Admit there may be something you don’t know

  3. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes.

It is one of the great privileges and challenges of a society like ours, in a time when an unprecedented number of people, whose voices were once unheard, can beam their voices around the world in seconds. As a woman, I carry the legacy of battles hard fought by women and men before me, and it is a responsibility that I take seriously. I want to use my voice – however insignificant – with compassion, understanding, thoughtfulness, rigour and openness. Not just with people I like, but with everyone.

So try to build a bridge. Like the one in the picture, it might be rickety. You will almost certainly fall off from time to time. The person on the other side may refuse to cross. But some people will and occasionally, if we really try, we will meet in the middle.

*The Future of Marriage with David Blankenhorn and Jonathan Rauch, On Being with Krista Tippett, April 4 2013.

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